Academic journal article Family Relations

Research on Difficult Family Topics: Helping New and Experienced Researchers Cope with Research on Loss

Academic journal article Family Relations

Research on Difficult Family Topics: Helping New and Experienced Researchers Cope with Research on Loss

Article excerpt

In this article we highlight some problems to which new researchers, their academic advisors, and experienced researchers who are embarking on research on loss need to attend. We discuss: (a) the personal issues that often play a role in the selection of a research topic and that often make it difficult to work with it objectively, (b) problems obtaining official and Institutional Review Board permission to do such research, (c) emotional problems that researchers and interviewers experience doing work on loss, and (d) emotional problems of participants. We include examples from research on adjustment to divorce and to natural and violent deaths as illustrations.


Research methodology texts focus on making the participants in surveys comfortable in the interview situation, but what is often slighted is the researcher's reaction to his or her own work, particularly when the research topic is one that elicits strong emotional reactions. Clinicians are trained to examine these issues and the impact they have on their work with patients, but researchers are less commonly exposed to such training. The emotional responses to what Gelles (1978) has called "sensitive family topics" can make data collection and analysis-and even the process of obtaining permission to do the research-more difficult than for research on less sensitive topics. This is particularly true in research focusing on loss, such as the death of loved ones by natural or violent means, divorce, responses to natural disasters, homelessness, and unemployment (Simos, 1979; Weiss, 1993).

This article is aimed at new researchers who may be unaware of the magnitude of these issues as they start a research project on such topics, as well as instructors who teach and guide them. In addition, more experienced researchers who may have built up defenses in dealing with these issues need to keep such tendencies in mind in understanding their own reactions, in supervising professional interviewers, and in working with the office staff of large research projects.

This article explores some of the personal and interpersonal issues that can be particularly problematic in research involving loss. These topics include the personal issues that often propel a research topic choice; how topics dealing with loss can make obtaining permission to do the research more diffcult; the anxieties research on loss can raise in researchers, interviewers, and office staff; and the issues that need to be addressed to help participants in discussing such powerful topics. Our focus is on the collection of data through structured and semistructured interviews, research techniques in which it may seem less apparent that such issues need to be addressed (but see Sprague & Zimmerman, 1993 and Stange & Zyzanski, 1989, who maintain that there is an artificial dichotomy between such techniques and qualitative approaches). Although the issues involved transcend these research topics, we shall primarily use our own experience in research on violent death victims, bereavement in natural and violent death, and divorce to illustrate many of the issues we shall be discussing (Kellerman et al., 1993; Kitson with Holmes, 1992; Kitson & Zyzanski, 1987).


The background and experience of the researcher often dictate the types of research questions that attract him or her. The passion, concern, personal investment, and previous experiences that drive a topic choice may also, consciously or unconsciously, make it difficult for the researcher to do the work. This especially true if he or she is not aware of thest connections or is insufficiently self-critical of what Harding (1987, p. 9) has called "the unexamined beliefs and behaviors of social scientists themselves."

Feminists highlight the difference between objectivism, or detachment from respondents, and objectivity, the ability to be objective, report accurately, and see evidence contrary to the hypotheses proposed (Eichler, 1988; Harding, 1987; Reinharz with Davidman, 1992; Thompson, 1992). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.